Category Archives: Writers homes

Authors At Home: William Wordsworth And Dove Cottage

You don’t need to have detailed knowledge about William Wordsworth to know about his close association with the Lake District in north west England.

Grasmere Lake, beloved by William Wordsworth
Grasmere Lake, Lake District, England
Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons Licence

He and his sister Dorothy were born there but left when their mother died and their father sent them to different parts of the country. William to be educated in Lancashire, then Cambridge; and Dorothy to live with relatives in Yorkshire.

But the countryside of Cumberland and the lakes was a constant draw for William. In 1779, while on a walking tour of the Lake District he found a cottage for rent in the south east of the district, near the village and lake of of Grasmere. He and Dorothy settled there in December that year.

The cottage became their home for more than eight years. William Wordsworth described his new home and the garden surrounding it as “the loveliest spot that man hath ever found”.

He arrived having already published a collection of poems now recognised as a landmark in the Romantic movement: Lyrical Ballads. At Grasmere his work flourished, inspired by his proximity to the ever-changing landscape of the valleys and hills surrounding the cottage.

It was here that he he produced some of the most famous and best-loved of his poems: his “Ode: Intimations of Immortality“, “Ode to Duty“, “My Heart Leaps Up” and “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud“. He also wrote a new Prelude to Lyrical Ballads together with parts of his autobiographical epic, The Prelude.

Today, the home he occupied with first his sister, and then with his wife and three children, is open to the public, visited by more than 70,000 people each year.

Dove Cottage, home to William Wordsworth
Dove Cottage, Grasmere
Source: personal collection

I turned up one summer day in 2015, only to be disappointed because there were no admission tickets left that day. The cottage is tiny and such is the level of demand, that numbers have to be strictly controlled by the Wordsworth Trust that manages the building. Fortunately I was more successful on my second attempt.

“Dove Cottage” as it’s now called (it didn’t take that name until after Wordsworth’s time) is a solid looking two storey building with lime-washed walls and a slate roof. Inside there are four rooms on each floor, showing many of the original features and items owned by the Wordsworths. The collection of wooden sticks used by Dorothy to clean her teeth were an oddity. I was more taken with a beautiful wooden chest which contained a precious store of expensive tea leaves.

William Wordsworth’s Tea Caddy:
Source: personal collection

On the ground floor there are four rooms, with oak panels and slate floors typical of Lakeland buildings from the eighteenth century. One room next to the main door was a room which had multiple functions: it was used as a parlour or reception room but also had a cooking range. The main kitchen, was in a smaller space with an attached buttery or larder.

A smaller room next to the parlour was initially used as Dorothy’s bedroom. Such was her devotion to her brother, that when he married in 1802, she relinquished this room to the married couple because the ceiling of their own bedroom was leaking.

Upstairs were the bedrooms and a second parlour used for entertaining and light meals. Right at the front of the house is the room used by William Wordsworth as his study, with views over the meadows to Grasmere Lake. It was fun to imagine him in this chair watching the clouds rolling in over the hills or the light flickering in the fireplace.

William Wordsworth's study

It would be easy to romanticise the cottage. But it can’t have been easy to manage the domestic arrangements; there was no running water inside the house for one thing. It would have been quite crowded at times with three adults, three children and the numerous visitors that came to stay.

The Wordsworths employed a local girl as a maid to take care of their cooking and washing but Dorothy’s journal also makes it clear that she was not averse to rolling up her sleeves to get domestic chores done. In their first summer in the cottage, she records one Monday that she:

 bound carpets, mended old clothes, read Timon of Athens, dried linen…

There were compensations however.

The house had a tiered garden and orchard at the rear that the Wordsworths set about arranging as a semi wild space. into a “little nook of mountain-ground” (The Farewell). Dorothy’s journal gives us a glimpse of the hours they devoted to the project.

In May 1800 she notes:

I brought home lemon-thyme, and several other plants, and planted them by moonlight.

Then the following month comes this entry:

In the morning W. cut down the winter cherry tree. I sowed French beans and weeded. …  In the evening I stuck peas, watered the garden, and planted brocoli. (sic)

Dove Cottage, home to William Wordsworth
Garden at rear of Dove Cottage
Source: personal collection

When they weren’t working or sitting in the garden, brother and sister spent their time walking or on the lake; all the time observing and reflecting on what lay around them. The results were captured in Dorothy’s Journal and in William’s poems. In one unpublished poem (later titled Home at Grasmere)  he meditated on what it meant to make this environment his home.

Embrace me then, ye Hills, and close me in;
Now in the clear and open day I feel
Your guardianship; I take it to my heart;
‘Tis like the solemn shelter of the night.
But I would call thee beautiful, for mild,
And soft, and gay, and beautiful thou art
Dear Valley, having in thy face a smile
Though peaceful, full of gladness. Thou art pleased,
Pleased with thy crags and woody steeps, thy Lake,
Its one green island and its winding shores;
The multitude of little rocky hills,
Thy Church and cottages of mountain stone
Clustered like stars some few, but single most,
And lurking dimly in their shy retreats,
Or glancing at each other cheerful looks
Like separated stars with clouds between.

 The family abandoned Dove Cottage in May 1808 to find more spacious accommodation. It was then occupied by one of their friends Thomas de Quincey who lived there for several years.

 The cottage was acquired by the Wordsworth Trust in 1890 and opened to the public as a writer’s home museum in 1891. Its status and importance is preserved for the nation through its designation as a Grade 1 listed building,

If you’re ever in the vicinity of Grasmere, do make a point of visiting the cottage. I’d recommend you go as late in the afternoon as possible when the bulk of visitors will have left and you can sit in the arbour at the top of the garden, and enjoy the peace and solitude that William would have known.

How Dylan Thomas Found Inspiration In A House

I’ve long been curious about the lives of authors. Their writing routines, the writers that inspired them; their quirky habits and the places where they lived, worked and died.

So I thought I’d start a series of posts about the homes that provided shelter, solace possibly, inspiration for some of history’s greatest literary talents.

Let’s kick off with the most famous literary export from Wales – the poet and playwright Dylan Thomas.

From his “wordsplashed hut”, perched on a cliff, Dylan Thomas watched eagles and egrets wheel and cry above the river mouth, and composed what were to be his last poems.

Dylan Thomas Falls In Love

Dylan Thomas boathouse
View of The Boathouse from across the estuary

Thomas lived with his family in The Boathouse in the Welsh village of Laugharne for four years. He’d fallen in love with the place when he first saw it on a day’s outing with a friend. He became, he said one of these residents who arrived by bus and simply forgot to leave. And it wasn’t simply because the village had seven pubs! 

Rather, it was the “timeless, mild, beguiling” nature of Laugharne that appealed to Thomas. 

In one of the prose pieces published the collection Quite Early One Morning he described it as a place:

of herons, cormorants (known here as billy duckers), castle, churchyard, gulls, ghosts, geese, feuds, scares, scandals, cherry trees, mysteries, jackdaws in the chimneys, bats in the belfry, skeletons in the cupboards, pubs, mud, cockles, flatfish, curlews, rain, and human, often all too human, beings.

From The Boathouse (“My seashaken house / On a breakneck of rocks”) he could look across the  estuary of the Towy where it flowed into the vast Carmarthen Bay and beyond it to the cliffs of the Gower peninsula. 

Laugharne
View from Dylan Thomas home on the estuary at Laugharne,

The four years he lived in Laugharne coincided with  a creative surge for the poet. He used a shed a little further along the lane from the house as his study.

Dylan Thomas writing shed
Dylan Thomas’ writing shed at Laugharne

A Poet’s Inspiration

It was here that he wrote some of his most famous poems, including Do not go gentle into that good night, and Over St John’s Hill, which depicts hawks swooping over the river mouth in search of prey.  

The sounds and sights of the estuary were captured in another poem, written in 1944 to mark a walk he took on his thirtieth birthday to the shoulder of  Sir John’s Hill. 

Dylan Thomas lived in The Boathouse for four years from 1949. It was from Laugharne that he departed for his ill-fated trip to New York where he died suddenly in 1953.

Follow in Dylan Thomas’ Footsteps

Today visitors to Laugharne can experience both The Boathouse and Thomas’s Writing Shed. They are well worth a visit.

The house is now a museum which contains memorabilia from the family and some of the original furniture, including Dylan’s father’s desk.  The interior has been returned to its 1950s appearance, with a recording of Thomas’s voice playing in the background.

When you’ve finished in the house and enjoyed your cream tea, do take a moment to walk around the side of the building from which you get a fantastic view of the estuary. The way the light plays on the water is simply magical and hard to leave behind.

Dylan Thomas house
Dylan Thomas last house at Laugharne, Camarthanshire

You can’t go into the writing shed itself but you can get a good view just by peering through the window. It’s just one room that has been set as it looked when Dylan Thomas used it – even down to the scrumpled sweet wrappers on the floor amid discarded sheets of paper (early drafts perhaps?)

Dylan Thomas writing shed
Dylan Thomas’ writing shed at Laugharne,

Explore further

If a visit to both these places gives you an appetite for more Dylan Thomas connections, you are in luck.

You can re-tread the route Dylan Thomas took on his birthday (celebrated in the Birthday Walk poem). It skirts the castle ruins and runs along the estuary with information boards along the way.

Or you go into the town of Laugharne to visit Brown’s Hotel (one of his favoured watering holes).

You can listen to Thomas reading with almost too much gusto, via  this recording for the BBC).

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